Gray Jacobik on Anne Harding Woodworth




The Artemis Sonnets, Etc. by Anne Harding Woodworth. Turning Point Press, 2011.

One of the shortcomings of the general conversation among poets these days, and this may be the result of our workshop or the M.F.A. culture, is the harping upon the need, when forging a group of disparate poems into a manuscript, to find, by hook or crook, one or more patterns.  Sometimes these patterns are called the emotional arc, or the narrative strategy; patterns that, under the best circumstances grow organically, and under the worst circumstances feel cobbled together.  I know that a number of poets have written against this practice; far more have written, and taught, in support of it.  Poets are implicitly urged (particularly "in workshop") not to trust their readers while being explicitly urged to do precisely that.  Rich, lively, intensely emotional, capacious, beautifully written poems tucked in together under the counterpane, give rise to the patterns each reader needs to see, although, I admit, it isn't easy to trust that to be the case.

What is wrong, pray tell, with strong poems simply abiding beside one another? Yes, it may be true that that old "greater-whole-than-sum-of-its-parts" argument does have legitimacy on occasion; however, like the truly necessary poem, this rarity cannot be pounded into existence.

That is my one complaint against this new collection by Anne Harding Woodworth, The Artemis Sonnets, Etc.  I wish the poet hadn't tried so hard to make her poems into "a manuscript."  The book in hand, The Artemis Sonnets, Etc., is divided into three parts. The first part is comprised of seven poems, concluding with the title poem, a crown with the variant of the first line of the first sonnet providing the first line, not the last, of the second, but then the form follows the traditional pattern.  Varied as these seven are, what justifies the grouping here are real and/or imagined encounters with deer and bear.  Artemis, in her ironic guise as hunter and guardian of animals, who most famously turned Actaeon into a deer and then set his own dogs upon him, supplies the supernatural element that adds scope to poems of trans-species encounter.  

The central trope, one that re-occurs throughout this entire collection, is the desire for union with the Other. The poet's intensely empathetic nature reveals itself immediately in the third poem of the first part, "Deer and Me," about the speaker's slow-motion perceptions as she is in the act of hitting a deer with her car.  The encounter occurs on a snowy night, on icy roads:

            I am the deer now, I am the hooves in the road.
            You are the car, the tires, the flare of the lights.
            I am going to kill you, you're going to kill me.  

The present-progressive-rich final lines, with their pop-culture reference, extend the immediacy of the instant, reach back across decades, and speak to the fundamental, that is the aesthetic, truth of the encounter.  At the same time, Woodworth's punctuation and use of space, encode the singer's voice:

            I'm killing and braking and sliding and skidding
            inside this steamed-up glass and metal,
            while Joe Cocker is singing

            "You––are––so––beautiful                 to me."

A good deal of work for four lines to do!  Here Woodworth transforms into a truly memorable poem a subject often taken up by poets with far less success.  

"The Russian Bear" is another effective poem in this first section.  The poet compares a circus bear's captivity to that of women "brought out of Russia and Nigeria / to Italy" and worked as prostitutes, controlled by a pimp as an ice-skating bear was by his captor.  Once again, here, at the end of this poem, the unifying gesture occurs: the over-arching allusion to Artemis, who could turn herself into any animal she wished to be, is paired with the poet's central trope of union:

            I want only to be the bear
            that wended the path to our cabin—
            as if she were Artemis coming for tea.

The poems of the second and third sections are a sweep of lyrics, narratives, and mixed-mode poems that weave together the speaker's romantic history, both in Frankfurt in the late 1980s, and in Greece in the late-1960s through the early 1970s, with events in Greece during the Nazi occupation.  There is a grandmother who survived the Nazi occupation and other characters, some more generally sketched than others, who have emigrated from Greece to the United States.  

In the last fifteen of the poems, or so, of the second section, there is a quasi-narrative sequence about a lover and a husband (perhaps one and the same) and the speaker's growing isolation from, and eventual divorce from, that husband-meteorologist. What concerns the poet most centrally, and one of the core strengths of this collection, are moments that are both in time and out of time simultaneously.  As one of the epigraphs Woodworth uses, from Galway Kinnell, expresses it, Woodworth is concerned with those instances "when the past just managed to overlap the future."  

I do find myself wishing, however, that the second half of the second section stood alone, and that some of the pronoun references were less oblique and more obvious.  Who is this "him" "his" "he" who shows up in poem after poem?   Is this the same man? The husband?  The father of Greg?  I think the poet wanted to have her cake and eat it too: the cake being to sustain a metaphysical meditation across a series of narratively linked poems; the "eating it too" being reticence and authorial distance.  Why bind poems within the framework of a story, and then be coy about certain grounding facts of service to the reader?  Not that we need a proper name . . . .

The first dozen or so poems of that section appear to be more closely linked to those in the third.  Among these, I particularly appreciate "Occupation 1942" and want to present it in its entirety:

            All the animals had turned into food.
            Some citizens lied to, stole from,
            one another.  Marriages corroded.
            Other citizens loved each other openly
            and shared shelter.  War finds the kind
            and the unkind.  Trees were gone
            into temporary warmth.  And boiled water.
            On the barren clay, horta
            and other green weeds grew,
            which the kind ones shared.  Curfew
            kept all of them inside at night,
            mending, coughing, caressing, arguing

over what Athens was like
            before the Occupiers came,
            before the order to shoot
            whatever moved in the streets was given.
            To complicate starvation and disease,
            kind and unkind women aborted,
            some relieved to have no sweet suckler,
            others calling out for the child they'd saved from life.
            When it was over, they rarely talked about it.
            But old photographs show that deadly "––stresse"
            attached to the names of the Greek streets.

This narrative poem rewards the reader beautifully through its scope and the clear, clean, direct presentation.  Eschewing adornment, this poem glitters: "Marriages corroded."  "All the animals had turned into food." Who could not delight in such deft and efficient strokes that—within the larger context generated by the title, by the coughing, stealing, "starvation and disease," by the "kind and unkind women [who] aborted," and most especially by Woodworth's stunning last sentence—take on the compass of the deeply tragic?

Time, along with unity, is the second great theme that binds these disparate poems together.  When time and history pin the poem to a particular place, as they do in "Occupation 1942," or "Monastery, 1969," the poet seems to draw into herself enormous strength.  A short lyric, "Fall 1989," is another that combines time, place, and historical fact with the drama of individual existence.  Here it is in full:


            Outside Frankfurt in a rented car,
            he turns the radio on

            and we hear the century's news
            not for the first time:
            the Berlin wall is coming down.

            I want a divorce, he says.

            We are tourists
            on the grounds of a castle.
            Trees have been pruned for the season,
            wrapped in burlap
            hiding spiked branches.

The compression here is astoundingly effective.  I enjoy thinking about all the poet did not say.  We know nothing about this couple other than that they are married and are tourists.  That the car is "rented," that they find themselves "on the grounds of a castle" where resonate the intimations of lives lived long ago, and from the word "castle" alone come the connotations of keep and fortress, of political and moral obligations long ago obliged.  Added to this is the fundamental dramatic situation: the two, who are about to experience their own severing, are captive in a car for the duration of their drive, caught, as they are, listening to "the century's news" (the partitioning of Germany after WWII, the rise of the Communist block, and, of course, The Third Reich and the Holocaust, etc.).  The poet lets us know that this is "not for the first time."  The "Berlin wall is coming down" even as, ironically, one rises irrevocably between the couple.  That some of the trees "have been pruned for the season" and are "wrapped in burlap/hiding spiked branches" beautifully understates this couple's kept-in-check, civilized emotions.  Woodworth's displacement of emotion into these very few, yet carefully selected details, is simply masterful.  

While many of the poems in The Artemis Sonnets, Etc. work their weavings magisterially, I do admit that the interludes that occur at random intervals in Parts II and III, in the form of poems which carry the word "geometry," baffle me.  The titles are "Geometry: Hexagon," "Geometry: Cube," and so on through isosceles triangle, tangent, cone, and circle.  "Geometry: Tangent" is about a moment of daring after the lyric-speaker nearly died from pericarditis. "Geometry: Cone" is about a volcano erupting in Greece. "Geometry: Circle" would have been better served by its subtitle (which I imagine was its title at some point in its evolution ––"The Man Who Loved Greek History Too Much").  I suppose, associating geometry with Greece, through Archimedes, is what Woodworth intends, but I find this insufficiently organic to what is being said, in the whole of these poems, particularly since most of these are impressionistic and carry their weight primarily as tone poems.  They feel like an attempt at bridging natural divisions.

There are more than enough marvels in The Artemis Sonnets, Etc., to justify buying, reading, re-reading and savoring this book: organization, in my view, is not one of them.  Although I've lived with this book only a couple of months, I see that the poems I care about in this collection have re-arranged themselves in my memory.   Isn't this what poems always do, especially where they really live—in readers?  Or, rather, what readers do with poems?   

  



Gray Jacobik's collections include Brave Disguises (AWP Poetry Prize, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), The Surface of Last Scattering (X. J. Kennedy Prize, Texas Review Press, 1999), The Double Task (Juniper Prize, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), and a memoir-in-verse, Little Boy Blue (CavanKerryPress, 2011).  Gray holds a Ph.D. in British and American Literature from Brandeis University and is a professor emeritus, having retired from Eastern Connecticut State University. For almost three decades, Gray's poems have been published widely and a number of have received prizes. She is a painter as well as a poet.  For more information about Gray's work, please visit her website: http://grayjacobik.com










                                    

 

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